An early look into application trends for the GSMA Innovation Fund for Humanitarian Challenges 

With over 400 million people worldwide requiring humanitarian assistance, a number increasingly driven by conflict and climate shocks – now, more than ever, we are seeing the catalytic impact that funding localised innovation can have supporting development of solutions that address humanitarian challenges. Research has shown that innovations are scalable and more sustainable when designed by those affected. In a recent call for funding, the GSMA Innovation Fund sought applications from small and growing enterprises, including start-ups, with projects that can improve access to sustainable digital-enabled solutions for those who are affected by – or vulnerable to – humanitarian challenges.

This blog outlines some of the trends we saw from the applications submitted and provides a snapshot of organisations seeking funding to support their digital humanitarian solutions. 

Technology type: As expected, AI/Frontier Tech comes high

Applicants were asked to indicate what primary technologies they will be using for their proposed digital humanitarian solutions. Alongside mobile apps, Frontier Tech/Artificial Intelligence (AI) led the way, with over 50% of applicants stating that AI made up part of their solution. AI is playing an increasingly important role in the humanitarian innovation space, with startups and SMEs now beginning to harness technology towards positive impacts in local communities, working alongside the more traditional humanitarian actors such as NGOs. The use of AI in the applications ranged from speeding up and improving once manual ’back-office’ processes to developing more sophisticated user-facing chatbots and virtual assistants. Commercially, it is clear that AI innovations have the potential to be sustainable and scalable; from a recent report by the GSMA, it is estimated that AI could be doubling Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate by 2035. The same report also discusses how governments are creating enabling environments to allow AI innovations to flourish; for example, in Kenya, a taskforce on blockchain and AI was formed by the Kenyan government to provide recommendations to harness AI effectively. AI use in humanitarian settings, of course, does not come without risks and ethical concerns around potential for bias and discrimination; the GSMA Innovation Fund is committed to making sure that any solutions selected for funding that are using AI are meeting relevant emerging standards and norms for ethics and AI.

Geographic distribution: Applications from Africa once again dominate

Of the primary countries for each proposed project, 73.5% of applications received were for projects in Africa, an increase of 10% from the GSMA Innovation Fund for Anticipatory Humanitarian Action. 19% were applications for projects in South and Southeast Asia (a drop of 4%), 4.5% in Latin America, 2% in the Middle East and 0.3% in the Pacific. The geographic distribution is broadly in line with other innovation funds across GSMA, with the GSMA Innovation Fund for Climate Resilience and Adaption 2.0 receiving 71% of their applications from Africa and 25% from South and Southeast Asia. Geographic areas with the largest concentration of applications received does not necessarily reflect the geographic concentration of humanitarian crisis nor the areas most vulnerable to disasters; Africa, however, has the highest density of the least developed countries in the world according to OECD, as well as a long history of humanitarian aid flowing into the continent. While these trends were predictable, they also highlight a need for deliberate efforts by funders and investors to reach innovators from other overlooked ecosystems, which also face considerable humanitarian challenges.

Funding stage: Early stage investment sought

Trends from the applications show that organisations at varying levels of maturity and growth applied for funding. Below is a table breakdown of the trends, with a definition for each stage.

Funding stageDefinition
Pre-seedThe earliest stage of funding for a new company or organisation. Operations will have just begun.
SeedThis stage is where companies will be receiving early stage investment – gaining access to funds to meet initial startup costs and potential growth. 
Series AThe next round of funding after the seed funding; Series A funding is used to ensure the continued growth of a company, aiming to attract multiple investors.
Series BThis stage is where funding is sought at a higher scale, usually for scaling and replication.
Series CConsidered to be final stages of funding, with investor range significantly broader and more diverse and larger investment sums expected.
OtherThe 10% other figure is made up from applications mostly from social enterprises; businesses with specific humanitarian objectives, with revenue playing an essential role in the venture’s sustainability.

As the focus of this round is largely on startups, it is unsurprising that most applications have come from organisations seeking early stage investment. 

Senior leadership: Upward trend on female entrepreneurs

We were encouraged to see that 53% of applications were from businesses that were either female founded or had female senior leaders/directors. This is an upward trend from the anticipatory humanitarian action round, and is similar to statistics from the Climate Resilience and Adaptation 2.0, where 56% had at least one female member on their executive board or were female founded. This is a positive trend, as women and girls are disproportionately impacted by humanitarian challenges; having female leaders and thinkers designing targeted solutions that address the needs of women and girls is very much in line with the objectives of this fund. 

Humanitarian theme: Disaster preparedness out in front

Applicants were also asked to indicate which humanitarian themes apply to their project. 55% responded their projects focused on disaster preparedness and response. 45% confirmed food insecurity as a theme for their project and 40% of applicants’ projects were seeking to address challenges faced by forcibly displaced populations. 40% of applicants also chose the option ‘other’, with some of these projects focussing on digital inclusion, education, agri-tech and utilities for example.  

Disaster preparedness and early warning systems are a key area of focus for the GSMA Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation Programme, highlighted by the GSMA Innovation Fund for Anticipatory Humanitarian Action portfolio and our recent work publishing research on the use of cell broadcast for early warnings, convenings of cross sector stakeholders in APAC and the Caribbean, and our role in Pillar 3 of the Early Warning for All Initiative. Given this body of recent work, it is therefore unsurprising that a large number of applications came from organisations focussing on these areas. The overall breadth of projects proposed to the Fund however is exciting and speaks to the potential of digital and mobile when it comes to addressing humanitarian challenges.  

We are encouraged by the high number of good quality applications received by the Innovation Fund and appreciate the time taken by every organisation who proposed a project in this round of funding. We look forward to announcing the new cohort of successful grantees in late 2024. Before then, you can explore the full GSMA Innovation Fund portfolio of organisations or sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date.

This initiative is currently funded by UK International Development from the UK government and is supported by the GSMA and its members.
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